The Upside of Anger

April, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Mike Binder

Starring:Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder, and Dane Christensen

Given Hollywood's penchant for churning out movies for kids, teens and those hooked on expensive demonstrations of technical wizardry, it's hard not to applaud a film created by and produced for those of us who remember America before the advent of cell phones, the Internet and MTV. When such a movie revolves around a character played by the gifted Joan Allen, (Nixon, The Contender, The Bourne Supremacy) the upside ought to be substantial. Yet despite Ms. Allen's appealing performance, (along with a highly credible complement to it delivered by Kevin Costner) Upside never builds up a head of steam. Its characters establish momentum only to dissipate it, which makes watching this comedy/domestic drama like driving an amusement park bumper car; directionless motion occasionally punctuated by abrupt opposing forces. 

Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, suburban mother of 4 teenage daughters, whose husband has abruptly abandoned the family, supposedly to run off with his Swedish secretary. Terry responds with a combination of bitterness, insecurity and an inclination to stay very close to a bottle of vodka. Her offspring include a withdrawn college student, a wannabe dancer, a generously endowed aspiring career girl and Popeye, a diaphanous 15 year old who's fond of creating homemade videos comprised of downloaded internet images accompanied by her observations about the difference between male and female aggression. Terry takes her anger and frustration out on the girls; each of them responds with behavior that drives her increasingly into a freeform, sharp-tongued maelstrom.

Into this vituperative jumble wanders Denny Davies, former big-league ballplayer and boozy radio commentator sweet on Terry and anxious to work with a real-estate developer who wants to carve the Wolfmeyer's 8-acre backyard into a mini-subdivision. Terry drinks because she's angry at the life she's been forced to live; Denny drinks because he hasn't got a life and needs something to occupy his time. 

It's a tribute to this pair of solid actors that they make more of the script than it deserves; they manage to spin the occasional bit of gold from the dross writer/director Mike Binder supplies. Like the protagonists in the much over-rated German film Head-On, Terry and Denny are so self-absorbed it's hard to like, sympathize or identify with them, but over the screenplay's 3 year storyline, they establish a romantic relationship which permits each to see the value in the other and in Terry's four girls. Unfortunately, the film covers this 36-month time span in such episodic and disconnected fashion the audience can be forgiven for believing they're watching "favorite scenes" from a long-running television sitcom. (An elderly viewer just behind me in the theater kept asking her companion, "Am I missing something?) 

Binder has each of Terry's daughters embody a different method of dealing with the stresses imposed by their father's disappearance and their mother's sullen fury, but they emerge as psychiatric clichés. The director himself plays a supporting role as Shep Goodman, the producer of Denny's radio show. Shep has a thing for bad jokes and young women; Binder's graceless attempt at comic relief suggests that in the future, he should spend more time behind the camera than in front of it. To make matters worse, the director throws an unnecessary, (and wildly improbable) Deus ex Machina into the movie's climax, which assures a two-hankie fade-out while drenching the more thoughtful aspects of his story in gooey platitudes.

Was this writer/director/actor intent on providing his audience with a comedy, a study of upper-middle class angst or a deliberately intermittent examination of the myriad ways in which people can lacerate those they love? With a smattering of each of these ingredients swirling around in this stew, it's tough to tell.     

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